Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Review of "Anastasia"

Anastasia, the new musical receiving its world premiere at Hartford Stage, is a first rate, crowd-pleasing production based on the 20th Century Fox animated film. 

The plot, part history lesson, part Pygmalion, and part fairy tale, centers on two self-confident rascals, Dmitry, a young lad and Vlad, an older gentlemen and former member of the royal court.  They are searching for a young woman to impersonate the Duchess Anastasia.  Rumors abound that she alone survived the murder of her father, Tsar Romanov of Russia, and the rest of her family at the onset of the Russian Revolution.  Her grandmother, living in Paris and believing she is still alive, has offered a handsome reward to anyone locating her lost granddaughter.  By sheer happenstance the pair discover a young lass, Anya, who has amnesia, but resembles Anastasia and curiously knows details of the Romanov household.  After some coaching the three succeed in their perilous journey to Paris to consummate their deceitful intentions.  But a blossoming romance between Dmitry and Anya, a cagey Russian assassin, and a disbelieving Dowager Empress conspire to thwart the well thought through plans.  In the end, a satisfying resolution is reached even as an air of mystery continues to surround the young woman.

Terence McNally’s libretto smartly puts Anya front and center.  She is strong, outspoken, and vulnerable—just what tween and teenage girls, a huge audience for Broadway musicals, want to see.  Act I is concise and flows effortlessly from scene to scene.  Character’s traits and motives are quickly developed, as is the overall arc of the show.  Act II is a bit choppier as scenes, while entertaining, seem somewhat horseshoed into the show as we wait for the two protagonists—Dmitry and Anya—to come together as well as see a verdict of Anya’s origins.  Is this a sizeable problem?  No, but if it can be addressed before the Broadway opening it would make for a stronger production.

The score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the composing team behind such Broadway shows as Ragtime, Seussical, Once on This Island, and My Favorite Year, is one of the best the duo has written over the last several years.  The songs, augmented from the movie soundtrack, are rooted in a more classical Broadway vein and are tuneful, haunting, and high-spirited.  They are wonderfully sung by the superb group of performers.

The cast is led by Christy Altomare as Anya.  The actress is spunky, courageous, intelligent and beautiful.  She has a powerful voice that literally soars throughout the theater.  Derek Klena, with a self-confident swagger, is convincing as the scheming, big-hearted, and handsome Dmitry.  He and Ms. Altomare have a wonderful chemistry that lights up the stage.  Both John Bolton as Dmitry’s partner in crime, Vlad, and Caroline O’Connor, as Countess Lily, add a pleasing and lively comic touch to the musical.  Mary Beth Peil is snobbishly regal, showing pain and heartache, as the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.

Darko Tresnjak’s sure-handed direction keeps the action fluid and focused.  The scene changes are quick and straightforward.  He adroitly balances the many tonal qualities of the show—its brashness, suspense, and comic sensibilities--to fashion a rewarding whole.  What is needed is a better integration of the disparate scenes in Act II to completely realize the production’s possibilities.

The choreography by Peggy Hickey is skillfully incorporated into the musical without being showy or overbearing.  The dances suitably fit within the framework of the time periods and include elegant promenades, jaunty swing steps and comic hoofing.

Aaron Rhyne’s video and projections are some of the finest I’ve seen on a Connecticut or New York stage.  They seamlessly blend into each scene eliciting murmured praise from the audience.  While reproducing lush forests or architectural wonders they never overpower the production or call undo attention to their wizardry.

Alexander Dodge’s scenic design is perfectly in sync with Rhyne’s video projections.  The two create a triumphant whole.  As with Hartford Stage’s Rear Window, this is a large-scale, multi-functional set that dazzles and delights.

The costumes by Linda Cho are sumptuous and cover a wide range of styles from aristocratic finery to peasant garbs.  This was a monumental feat to dress so many actors and actresses elegantly and precisely.  Kudos to Ms. Cho and her dedicated assistants.

Anastasia, a gorgeous and gratifying new musical, playing through June 19th at Hartford Stage.

No comments: